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New Left Review 93, May-June 2015

mike davis


The Politics of Nationalism in 1848

What do we talk about when we talk about nationalism? Too much, it would seem. One sociologist complains that ‘the scholarship on ethnicity, race, and nationalism has become unsurveyably vast’; a leading intellectual historian deems it ‘intolerably protean’. [1] Rogers Brubaker, ‘Ethnicity, Race, and Nationalism’, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 35, 2009, p. 22; and J. G. A. Pocock, ‘Review of British Identities Before Nationalism by Colin Kidd’, The Scottish Historical Review, vol. 79, no. 2, October 2000, p. 262. In his recent primer, the British sociologist Anthony Smith—who is, amongst other distinctions, the chief bibliographer of nationalism studies—describes an intellectual sprawl rather like Los Angeles: ‘These debates are diffuse and wide-ranging. They concern not only competing ideologies of nationalism nor even just the clash of particular theories. They involve radical disagreements over definitions of key terms, widely divergent histories of the nation and rival accounts of the “shape of things to come”.’ Amongst the currently warring camps, Smith distinguishes ‘primordialists’, ‘perennialists’, ‘neo-perennialists’, ‘instrumentalists’ and ‘modernists’. (He might have added ‘constructivists’, ‘neo-Weberians’ and ‘neo-Beardians’ as well.) He describes himself meanwhile as an ‘ethno-symbolist’, investigating nationalism as the modernization of pre-existing cultural identities. [2] Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism, Cambridge 2010, p. 3. In the face of so many categorical elisions, conflicting typologies and incongruent disciplinary perspectives, nationalism studies is seemingly embalmed in what Clifford Geertz called a ‘stultifying aura of conceptual ambiguity’. [3] Clifford Geertz, ed., Old Societies and New States, New York 1963, p. 107.

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